Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Lackluster Alaska Air

In the last month, I've had the misfortune to fly Alaska Air four times.  I say "misfortune" because I had previously held Alaska Air in rather high esteem when they were a partner with Northwest Airlines, and I was a NW Airlines Platinum member.  "Membership has its priviledges"... indeed.  Lemme 'splain.

The day after Halloween, I had to go to Hong Kong for a business trip.  I booked the trip with Alaska Air on the US domestic legs, continuing onto their PARTNER Delta Airlines for the international legs.  It was supposed to be all one big ticket, and supposed to be San Diego to Seattle, and then Seattle to Hong Kong DIRECT, Non-stop, so I could sleep on the flight and arrive Well Rested to talk to the customers I needed to talk to the day after I landed, 14 time zones away. The multi-national corporation no longer allows business class travel anywhere, so this was going to be 15 hours in a coach seat, hoping to not get deep vein thrombosis from the cramped inactivity of being a human sardine / steerage / valued-slightly-less-than-cheap-cargo-under-the-plane.  I booked the ticket..  and then... my corporate travel agent Split the Alaskan ticket and the Delta, then Delta cancelled the direct flight, routing me through Tokyo Narita.  Well, for an airline with useful IT support and adaptive ticketing, this should not have been a problem.  Unfortunately, Alaska Airlines has terrible IT support - very nice & friendly staff who interface with customers in the airports and on the phone, but abysmal computer infrastructure and inter-connectivity.

When I attempted, on Halloween morning, to check-in online, all I kept getting was an error message online "There has been an error, please contact customer service".  4 times I entered my information, four times I was foiled.  I called a customer service person... they manually checked me in, and then told me "we cannot check you into the Delta flights, our system doesn't talk to theirs. You'll need to check in at the airport with them when you get to Seattle."  WTF??? (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday...)  My $2000 flight over 15,000 miles of this planet, is checked in only from San Diego to Seattle? Seriously?  Great.

So I take off out of San Diego Lindberg field 45 minutes late, land in Seattle with barely enough time to SPRINT from the N to the S gates (along with a snail's pace tram ride, since both the N and S gates are not connected to the rest of the airport, and the underground tram is the Only way to get there = lame), wolf down a Wendy's Baconator without bread or cheese, arrive at the Delta gate to Tokyo, with no boarding pass (since Alaska Air's system doesn't talk to Delta's) and I am told by the gate agent that "I'm sorry, you not checked in"  Exasperated, I told her I was checked in, I'd spent two hours checking in the day before, I'd talked to both Delta and Alaska Air on the phone, and I do have a seat back in row 18.  Another passenger from San Diego who was also going to Hong Kong, had the same conversation with the next agent over at the gate desk... so it wasn't just me.  They printed up my Seattle to Tokyo and Tokyo to Hong Kong passes, and I was literally the 2nd to last person on the Airbus 330 (the other SD passenger was the last), squeezing my luggage into the already over-burdened over-head racks, and sitting down hot & sweaty & itchy in my coach seat.  Awesome.

8 hours later, when I get to Tokyo, and I get security scanned like all the passengers, since Seattle security screening is obviously incompetent and inferior to the Tokyo security screeners - and I am finally queued up to get into the next plane to go to Hong Kong...  Again, my boarding pass is invalid, and I am told that I need to step aside and let the other passengers board.  Incredible, and ridiculous.  Because Alaska's system could not communicate with Delta's system, I am being stopped at every boarding and being told I am not checked in.  Grrrrrrrrrrrr....

On the way back, the same thing happened... every time I tried to board, I was told that my boarding pass was invalid.  Maddening.  My frequent flyer miles didn't post, and I had to waste 30 minutes on the phone with Delta to get them to post when I got home.

Trying to be the eternal optimist, I booked a last minute flight to Portland and back through Seattle via Alaska Air because they had direct flights, it was last minute for a business emergency, and I didn't want to have connections on the busiest travel day of the year, minimizing my chances of being stranded at some connection city too far to drive back to California.  I thought to myself "Alaska used to be very good...  top awards...  excellent safety record... they'll do better the 2nd time."  Plus the fact that they were not part of a 2 airline trip, so at least one variable was being eliminated with the "our system doesn't talk to theirs" excuse.

This Pre-Thanksgiving trip BEGAN very nicely... I was TSA pre-check, bumped up to First Class (because I am now Gold on Delta), got a big comfy seat, used glass glassware, steel knives and forks, and was offered copious amounts of cognac, which I had to refuse after the first one since I needed to drive once I got to Portland.  Getting to Portland was not a problem.  4 days later, when I attempted to fly home, was when the Alaska Airlines fun began.

You see, my incompetent corporate travel agent cancelled my ticket, and re-booked it, for a fare that was $120 cheaper.   This COMPLETELY discombobulated Alaska Airlines.  I was not allowed to check in (again) on my phone the night before.  I DID have a seat... but could not get a boarding pass.    The fourth day of my emergency trip ended 5 hours earlier than expected, so I headed to the airport hoping to get not he 3:50pm flight instead of the 6:50 flight (I got to the airport at 12:30, far in advance).  The Alaska Air desk agent before security worked for a full 20 minutes to get a boarding pass to print for me.  In her words "4000 key strokes later, it worked!"  Pathetic programming.  Completely non-robust.  Any change upsets the fragile software architecture and crashes on the traveller.  Sickening.

The ever-friendly gate agent tells me "we don't wait list passengers.  The 3:50 flight is showing full, but you CAN go to the departure gate and ask the agent there if anyone has not checked in."  Okey-dokey.  I can do that.. I have 3 hours to spare!   I go to the gate...   and the very polite agent there tells me "we are solidly checked in, but you can check again 30 minutes prior to the door closing."  OK...  I hover around... charge my phone... text my friends...  and then I notice the off-duty Alaska Air pilots wearing their hats and leather jackets, but not flying the plane... OHHHHHH!!!  They're the ones who get the last unclaimed seats...  3 of them!  Me, the paying passenger, I am no-body.  Personae non gratis.  The smirking, smug, elderly Alaska Air pilots laugh as I hover, and I hear one of them say "poor bastard thinks he'll get on" and nods in my direction.  Grrrrrrr  (again)

So now I am standing at my 6:50pm Departure gate, adjacent to an Anchorage Alaska departure gate, with a bunch of Alaskans and Alaska visitors all around me, as I rant about how I will never be flying Alaska Air again.  I don't care if they are the cheapest or the most direct, my behind will not be in another Alaska Air seat again.  Their IT system programming is walled off from American and Delta (the friendly gate agents told me "we have the same problem with American...  no one's system talks to ours"), they don't wait-list travelers, and they cater to their own off-duty pilots for the last unclaimed seats, as opposed to paying, ticketed passengers.  I am wasting an extra 3 hours of my life in Seattle because of Lackluster Alaskan Airline's non-customer-centric policies, pathetic IT programming, smug off-duty pilots, and my corporate travel agent's misguided metrics of "cost is more important than the traveler".

It will be good to finally decompress when I get home at 11 or 1130 pm this evening, after working 14 hour days the last 4 days through he weekend, and not give a damn about much of anything.  The Packers can smear the Bears by 40 points tomorrow, and I won't be surprised or sad by it, because I will just not be giving a damn at all this holiday weekend.

Rant over...  now I feel better.   = )

If you fly Alaska Airlines, and you like it, you're probably a Gold or Platinum frequent flyer.  Or, you're one of their smug pilots.

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